Sometimes, a strong premise makes for a weak movie, which ends up drowning in its own clever conceit.
The premise here, swiped from a Philip K. Dick story, is a neat variation on the old free will vs. determinism battle. Turns out there's no battle for the simple reason that there's no need. Seems every one of us is controlled by the hand of Fate, which belongs not a to a benign God, or even a wicked one, but to something far scarier - a bureaucracy. We're all the puppets of bland guys in suits, sitting in serried rows, clutching their schematic drawings and working their way up the pay grades in the Adjustment Bureau. Admit it: The idea cuts horrifyingly close to home.
But where to go with this notion? Kafka would have had some creepy fun and made us really squirm (actually, I think he did), yet writer-director George Nolfi, being a more conventional sort, promptly takes it to Manhattan and the high ground of romance.
David, a charismatic politician on the road to the White House (Matt Damon) chances to meet Elise, a talented ballerina on the cusp of prima (Emily Blunt), and their eyes lock like a foregone conclusion - they banter, they kiss, it's love at first sight. Problem is, Fate has decreed there shall be no second sight, at least until an "adjustor" falls asleep on the job (a hazard in any bureaucracy) and accidentally permits a further encounter. More banter, more amorous sparks, and, naturally, much consternation among the bland guys in suits.
And hats. Did I mention they also wear fedoras, under which, apparently, their fateful magic is kept. Speaking of which, one of their number is played by John Slattery from Mad Men who, courtesy of that fedora, seems to be performing some extracurricular magic of his own - damned if he doesn't look as if he just got teleported right off the TV series.
Anyway, the hat brigade leaps into action to thwart the budding romance, deploying a variety of stratagems (I shan't trouble you with the details) that seem more comic than menacing. Whether that mild comedy is by design, or merely a matter of pure chance, is another question for the ages.
At this point, I confess that my mind began to wander back to my own thwarted romances, all those ill-chosen words and unreturned phone calls, and I began to feel reassured by this fresh knowledge that love is nurtured or killed by some guy in a tie. Who knew? I used to blame myself. No longer.
Well, flash-forward three years when, oops, doesn't the politician spot the dancer on the street, and this time they make it all the way into bed. In truth, Damon and Blunt are generating some real chemistry on screen - they're so good together that we want to see more of them.
But this is where the premise balloons up to swallow the movie. So back come those anti-Cupids from the Bureau. The problem is dire enough that the managers are called in, with Slattery giving way to Terence Stamp as a big-wig on the corporate ladder. From him, we learn that the adjustors have experimented on occasion with granting free will to humankind, but we just aren't up to the responsibility. (In our defence, he cites such trifling miscues as "the Dark Ages that lasted for five centuries" and "two World Wars and the Holocaust.")
And from him, we also learn the reason for their insistence on upsetting romance's applecart. Seems that future presidents and destined prima ballerinas are like boxers in the ring - too much love drains them of career motivation. By now, in case you hadn't guessed, that mild comedy (intentional or not) has itself ballooned into flat-out risibility, punctuated by the sight of Damon, wearing a stolen fedora with sporty checks, racing through a succession of magical portals, Fate's literal doors of perception.
I'll leave you to decide whether, so attired and so occupied, he more resembles (1) an antic contestant in some metaphysical Wheel of Fortune, or (2) a schnook in a time-warp auditioning for the Rat Pack version of Ocean's Eleven.
But that's one more of those timeless questions. As for the trivial debate between free will and determinism, there can be no doubt that The Adjustment Bureau was a pre-destined inevitability. Nor is there any mystery about the determining power - just blame it on more men in suits.
The Adjustment Bureau
- Directed and written by George Nolfi
- Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt
- Classification: PG